Grab a fork and come along. From Texas to Maryland, these places serve our region's most popular cakes, pies, and more.
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A Taste Tour of Sinfully-Rich Restaurant Desserts
For more than a year now, I've been eating dessert first. Not just any dessert, mind you. I've been on a quest to find those rich, showy favorites that satisfy the South's legendary sweet tooth--those confections that tell us a bit about the region we love so much.
When I started this journey, I feared that the old-fashioned homemade dessert had gone the way of the country store, struggling for survival in a mass-marketed, mile-a-minute world. But there are those who keep the flame burning, who carry on the sweet traditions of hospitality and showmanship.
So cinch up your girdle, and sample some Southern classics. If it makes you feel any better, you can read this while walking on the treadmill tonight.
photo: Stacked sky-high with layer-upon-layer, this cake is a specialty of Smith Island, Maryland.
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Commander's Palace, New Orleans, LA
The turreted Victorian, located in the heart of the Garden District, still boasts the same turquoise-and-white awnings and gingerbread trim outside, yet everything inside has been masterfully updated.
Each and every dessert here is still exceptional. I should know. I tried them all--twice. The pecan pie à la mode is rich and buttery, and the crème brûlée approaches perfection, yet the masterpiece remains the famous Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé.
Anticipation is half the fun. Diners must order this confection 20 minutes in advance. When it finally arrives, a server pierces the golden dome and drizzles it with a creamy whiskey sauce. The dessert is light as a cloud on top, dense and spicy on the bottom. When you take a bite--whether it's your first soufflé or your 31st--you'll offer a prayer of thanks that this New Orleans landmark lives on.
photo: Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé drizzled with whiskey sauce steals the show at Commander's Palace in New Orleans.
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Peninsula Grill, Charleston, SC
This is one of the South's grand desserts. A number of restaurants have it on the menu, but none compare to the six-layer coconut cake at the Peninsula Grill, located inside the Planters Inn on North Market Street.
A creamy coconut filling cushions the layers, while cream cheese frosting covers the outside. Freshly grated coconut--some toasted golden brown, some raw and translucent--ties it all together, like a bow on a very special package.
photo: At Charleston's Peninsula Grill, each piece of coconut cake weighs nearly a pound.
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Maryland's Famous Smith Island Cake
Made with stacked pancake-thin layers slathered with frosting, this cake is a specialty of the people who live on Smith Island, an isolated dot of dirt in the Chesapeake Bay.
Some cakes have as few as 7 layers; others boast up to 14. The range of flavors is limited only by the cook's imagination, but the traditional yellow cake with chocolate icing is the favorite.
If you plan to visit the island, wait for spring's more pleasant temperatures. Many Crisfield restaurants offer Smith Island Cake, as do several local bakeries. If you want a whole cake, call ahead. The bakers will send one to the mainland. For a list of cake makers, contact the Somerset County Tourism Office at 1-800-521-9189.
photo: "There is a lopsidedness to it, but that adds to the cake's specialness," says Smith Island, Maryland, baker Beverly Guy.
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The Pies of Texas
When you see a roadside sign boasting homemade pies in the Lone Star State, stop. You'll discover places such as Bevers Kitchen in Chappell Hill, where a neon sign over the pie case challenges you to "Try the Pie." At The Texas Pie Company in Kyle, they bake dozens of old-fashioned fruit and nut varieties and have recently added cream pies.
Still, I found none better than the Fredericksburg Pie Company. Their best-seller is owner Charlotte Freeborn's tasty Bourbon Orange Pecan Pie, but the chocolate and coconut--both topped with mile-high Italian meringue--may be the most impressive.
photo: Fredricksburg Pie Company's Bourbon Orange Pecan Pie is a favorite.
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Classic Southern Desserts
Apple Stack Cake: This traditional Appalachian dessert has all but disappeared from households and restaurant menus. But we found it among the homemade delights at Early Girl Eatery in Asheville, North Carolina. Banana Pudding: Almost every barbecue joint worth its sauce serves some version of this regional favorite, still we located a truly exceptional recipe at Galax Smokehouse in southwest Virginia. Beignets: At Café du Monde in New Orleans, doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar and dunked in chicory coffee remain a classic. At Washington's D.C. Coast, New Orleans native David Guas serves his beignets with a petite cup of Café au Lait Crème Brûlée. At nearby Acadiana, they're accompanied by coffee-laced chocolate panna cotta.
photo: Fredericksburg Pie Company makes everything from scratch, including the Italian meringue.
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Fried Pies: Roadside signs point the way to Original Fried Pies, located in a Sinclair gas station at Exit 51 off I-35 near Davis, Oklahoma. Try the fried pecan or chocolate cream. Call ahead, and they'll have fresh, hot pies waiting for you. Key Lime Pie: The Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory makes us smile with their chocolate-covered Key lime pie on a stick. Blue Heaven gets an A for their tangy pie topped with waves of golden brown meringue. Derby-Pie: This Kentucky dessert was created 50 years ago at the Melrose Inn in Prospect, Kentucky. Today, the walnut-and-chocolate chip pie is a trademarked product of Kern's Kitchen in Louisville. (Derby-Pie® is a registered trademark of Kern's Kitchen.)
photo: At The Belmont Inn in Abbeville, South Carolina, contributing chef Lee Pollard spikes his pie with peach Schnapps.
"Favorite Restaurant Desserts Across the South" is from the February 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.